It is nice to follow French elections. Newspapers in France have such a wealth of graphs and maps that they should be the envy of any country. Within a couple of day Liberation will have an interactive map that will allow you to look for complete results in small districts. Meanwhile tonight they already, ALREADY, have an interactive map with the regional results and the main cities of France (1). I copied it here so you can have an idea. And also see the favorable position that Nicolas Sarkozy holds at the end of the first round election. As one would say in the US political jargon the second round vote is for Sarkozy to lose (blue areas). It will be very difficult for Segolene Royal, in pink, to catch up with Sarkozy and this one could well win by an 8 point margin, a huge victory by French political standards. However, such a result is not automatic as I will discuss below.
The very good news of the election
There are two excellent news coming out from the election this week end.
The first one was the highest voter participation since the beginning of the 5th Republic in 1958 (republic numerals change in France for very good reasons, not because some caudillo says so!). The final abstention number is expected to be barely above 15%! The immediate conclusion is thus that when there are good candidates and real options offered, well, people get interested in the outcome of an election and contribute to that outcome. Take that US political system! Or take even more of that Venezuela: think about the legislative election of 2005...
The second news is that when you have such a massive participation the motivated extremes tend to show their true strength in the country. The French Extreme Right of Le Pen dropped to barely more than 10 %. But also the Communist party got its lowest score ever falling below 2% while the Radical left, mostly Trotsky ersatz sums at most 7 points. All in all, all of these extremes put together do not reach 20%! The 2002 debacle is reverted, we know that 80% of France espouses strong democratic values and even when they want real reforms they want them in peace and democracy, be these reforms coming from the right or the left.
France remains on the right side
No matter what the second round reserves for us in two weeks, from the graph below we can see that the right in France remains the majority, even after 5 years of a very lousy Chirac administration. In this graph I have added the totals of the different parties in somewhat ideological similarities.
I have tried to avoid words such as Extreme as I think it is unfair to describe Le Pen as an Extreme when some of the Trotsky candidates are barely more moderate than he is... but also because it allows me to group by political families the different groups and then perceive better what could be the outcome of the second round. Thus we have:
The Radical Right
This is Le Pen and de Villiers, a strong right wing anti European who in older days would have been the pro monarchy candidate. Together they are the most anti European groups of the lot, but together they do not even get the Le Pen score of 2002. They are expected to go at least half to Sarkozy in the second round even if this one does not court them. Their allergy to the left will be enough, though not an insignificant number of them might end up voting for Segolene hoping that she will fail and that they can grow for next election. These people are able to conceive such strategies.
The Center Right
Sarkozy's UMP alone has made a rather respectable score considering that it is an outgoing administration. In fact Sarkozy gets 10 points more than Chirac did in 2002 when he did not even reach 20%! A truly shameful result for a president seeking reelection. A number, by the way, that goes along way to explain his lackluster second term. At the very least this places the UMP in a very favorable position for the next legislative election even if Royal were to win in the second round.
The Center used to be a force to reckon with in France, during the 4th Republic and during the 5th where it got a very strong boost under Lecanuet and even reached office with Giscard D'Estaing though he was definitely on the right of the Center. But the Mitterrand years polarization laminated the center. It is still too early to see if Bayrou more than respectable 18%, a success that the Liberals of the UK would envy, will be transformed in a revived centrist option. The first requirement for that would be that the Socialists were to accept to share power with the UDF of Bayrou, and that is far from acquired.
But the main weakness of the Center is that it is formed by many right of center folks that do not like much Sarkozy but in the second round will likely go back to the right anyway. Also there were a significant number of socialists voting for Royal as a pragmatic vote since all polls showed that Bayrou would win against Sarkozy whereas Royal would lose. My prediction is that at the very least half of Bayrou voters will go to Sarkozy but 30% to Royal at most. That would be enough for Sarkozy to win. Segolene Royal needs to make an electoral pact to try to get an endorsement from Bayrou, which probably means that he would become her prime Minister if he wants. I do not see the socialists accepting such a pact, nor even Bayrou voters going for it. In such case Sarkozy would still get nearly 50% of Bayrou voters and Royal would climb up to 50% of that share, while she might lose from her radical left...
This is really a small hunter's movement, a rural curiosity, and it probably would go towards Sarkozy or abstain. It is loosely considered a center right ecological option.
The Center Left
The French Socialist Party is more and more looking like a Social Democrat party and a Royal victory would likely accelerate such evolution. Also, after having been supported by many leaders of the old fashioned left in a less than lukewarm fashion, she will be very tempted to accelerate such a renovation. However, together with the Greens, we find that this is a rather meager score for the legislative majority that she will need, but we can call it Center Left as of now.
The surprise here is not really a surprise: the collapse of the Greens who barely get 1.5% after the 5.25% of 2002. What happened? first the Greens are victim of that need to vote pragmatic at the first round to make sure that Royal would reach the second round. The trauma of 2002 when Jospin was eliminated at the first round is still too fresh. But the Greens have made another big mistake which eventually explains their disaster tonight: they have associated themselves too easily with the Socialists since 1997. No serious Green party can expect to maintain its originality and its ecological message if it ties its fate to a mainstream party for too long and too tightly. The Greens enjoyed too much the Socialists offerings of some of the perks of power undue for a rather small group; and they lost a lot of their attraction. It is likely that the Greens will experience a crisis in their movement and that we could even see a more independent Green movement emerge.
But back to the Socialists. Their score is relatively good. Indeed, they regain their position in French politics but they are in fact weak. Their weakness comes from two angles. First the rather surprising strong Sarkozy score, passing the magical 30% is bad news per se. But also they do not have a "reserve". Mitterrand in 1980 counted on a Communist Party with more than 10% that could be counted on to automatically transfer its votes to his name on the second round. This is not the case as the Radical Left is now a divided mosaic of prima donne that need to be individually courted. In other words, the "historical vote reservoir" of the socialists has disappeared without fattening much these ones.
Segolene Royal faces thus a difficult second round campaign and her rather somber demeanor tonight, where she was far from exulting, showed that she knows she is far from becoming the First French Female President. And even if she manages it, she is far from assured to get a majority in the coming legislative elections. If Sarkozy can afford not to court too much the Bayrou voter, Royal has to find a way to gain over their good will. Her victory goes through the center this time, not the Radical Left.
The Radical Left
This one tonight, through Buffet of the Communist party was already saying that Ms. Royal had to reassert the values of the Left if she wanted to win. Ms. buffet is not misjudging the situation, in fact she understand it very well even if she is saying exactly the opposite of what she should be saying according to logic. She knows that in fact Royal does not even need to request for her vote and Buffet already gave her the Communist Party endorsement. No, what Ms. Buffet knows is that if Royal makes a pact with the Bayrou camp this can send the Communist Party of France into oblivion, and thus her blustery warning. She must prevent such a pact even if she is forced to support such a pact in the end.
The situation has considerably changed in the Radical Left. The Communists have ceased to be the dominant force there. Now it is Besancenot and his Revolutionary Communist League (LCR in French) turn to become the standard bearers of the radical left as he manages almost half of its votes. Now France is the only Western Country, as far as I know, whose main Radical Left political expression comes in part from Trotsky ideas, even above traditional commie jargon. However what is more remarkable is that Besancenot retains his 2002 percentile which means that in absolute numbers his score increased and that LCR could become someday a 8-10% movement once the other minor parties dwindle into oblivion. This would complicate considerably the Socialists games to retain or gain power.
The question is whether this Radical Left which has attacked the social blandness of Segolene Royal a lot will be able to convince its voters to vote for her. I think that at least a 80% of them will go and vote anyway. But I also suspect that there will be enough of these radicals that will prefer to see a right wing government in the hope that in 5 years from now they will be stronger, betting on a renewed polarization, on gaining more and more over the immigrant poor neighborhoods (which is far from a proven theory).
The election, for me, is for Sarkozy to lose. There will be a only debate on May 2 and unless Sarkozy stumbles badly there, it is difficult for Royal to overcome what seems to be a 54-46 advantage for Sarkozy, something that has been constant in all polls for weeks and something that can be confirmed by tonight's results (if I include my predictions here and some other I did not write down, I get a 5% advantage for Sarkozy, already less than the 8% predicted by polls. Even a 5 % is still a more than decent margin in French politics).
But even if Sarkozy messes thing up (and he well could if he gets exasperated by an "anti Sarkozy front" promoted from some leftist sectors) the victory of Ms. Royal would be a hair thin victory of a completely atomized camp whereas Sarkozy hair thin defeat would be within a more unified camp. Thus the legislative elections would become a "third round" where any majority could pop out. A weak government would follow and France would have to postpone for a t least a couple more of years the long overdue reforms.
Thus if Royal does well in the debate I might find myself voting for her in two weeks while hoping that Sarkozy wins. But if she does not convince me I will find myself voting for Sarkozy hoping that her showing is good enough in the second round so that she will still be able to modernize the socialist party. In other words, if I vote for Sarkozy that might mean that he indeed will win by an 8 % margin.
Again, no simple answers. You gotta love politics :)
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1) Or you can go to the pages of Le Monde and look at the great interactive charts.